History of Rock and Dance Music

from the Guitar to the Laptop

from Chicago to Shanghai

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There is not one single history of rock music. There are several.

There is the history of the hits. Most books on rock music are histories of the hits. The charts decide, i.e. the masses decide. Marx would have loved it, except there is a catch: the masses tend to buy what is publicized by the media, which is what corporations pay money to publicize. Marketing decides the charts. Invest a few million dollars on me and even I, regardless of my musical talent, will break into the charts, i.e. will become part of "that" history of rock music. Most books on the subject are, in fact, books about the music industry. Very often, the profile of a musician is simply a list of her/his successes in the Billboard charts ("that album broke into the charts", "that album hit #5", "that album sold one million copies"). In other words, books on rock music tend to treat musicians like corporations or start-ups, judging them by their revenues, profits and marketing strategy.

Then there are national versions of the history of rock music. Italians have been more exposed to British music than USA music. The Eagles and Creedence Clearwater Revival are hardly known, whereas the Moody Blues and David Bowie are almost household names. The history of rock music viewed from Italy is sharply different from the history of rock music viewed from, say, Boston.

Finally, there are the individual histories of rock music. Each person grew up with a different set of idols, and tends to center the history of rock music around those idols, whether Led Zeppelin or Doobie Brothers.

My history of rock music is not a history of the charts (which i consider an aberration), it is not a national version (i have lived in three continents and have traveled to some 120 countries), and it is not an individual version (i grew up with classical music, literature and science, not with rock music).

I simply listened to a lot of music, researched the origins of the various styles, and drew my conclusions. Very often, i was unaware of how many records an artist sold (I learned it later, when thousands of fans sent me nasty complaints). Very often, i am unaware of what was popular in Italy or Boston.

Also, i feel no particular sympathy for any rock musician. My "idols" are Ernst, Shostakovic, Pessoa, Coltrane... not rock musicians.

This is the most subjective history of rock music that one could possibly write. But also the most impartial, independent, and balanced.

It ends up being mostly a history of "alternative" rock music. While this is a gross approximation, it has become customary to separate "mainstream" music and "alternative" music. If you do what i did (listen to the music without letting marketing & sales influence you), it is very unlikely that you will end up selecting the musicians who topped the charts, and very likely that you will be impressed by countless obscure recordings that were twenty years ahead of their time even though nobody heard them.

Fans of mainstream music will claim that it all boils down to personal taste. I beg to disagree. There is an absolute factor that bestows a form of primacy on alternative music. Tell anyone (alternative or mainstream musician) that s/he is playing mainstream music and s/he will get upset. Tell anyone (alternative or mainstream musician) that s/he is playing alternative music and s/he will be flattered. Fans may buy according to the media and to marketing campaigns, but they, too, implicitly recognize the primacy of alternative music. If you tell a Beatles fan that the Beatles were mainstream, you risk your life. The evidence is just overwhelming: even the most mainstream musicians tacitly agree that alternative music is more important, and even the masses that buy mainstream music tacitly agree that alternative music is more important.

In everyday life, people tend to talk about what people tend to talk about. In a sense, people think they are talking, but, in reality, they are only quoting (other people). Alternative music is an attempt to break this endless loop, to talk about something not because everybody is talking about it but because we actually have something to say.

At the same time, rediscovering alternative rock and giving it its dues is also a way to restore the reputation of rock music among the more sophisticated audiences. Too many rock critics blindly follow the instructions from the major record companies and hail whichever "next big thing" happens to get a larger marketing budget. Rock critics who cannot break free from this commercial slavery have done a huge disservice to rock music. Anyone who is into Beethoven's symphonies or Wagner's operas and is told that the Beatles' catchy three-minute tunes are the masterpieces of rock music will simply smile and politely nod, but never listen to rock music again; and will thus never learn that rock music has also produced 20-minute avantgarde suites and hour-long electronic poems that are easily as complex and as futuristic as contemporary classical music. If the Beatles are at the top of the pyramid, who in heaven wants to listen to the rest of the pyramid? But if the Beatles, Elvis Presley, Michael Jackson, etc. are at the "bottom" of the pyramid (and in my opinion they are closer to the bottom than to the top), then it makes a lot of sense for anyone into serious music to investigate the rest of the pyramid.

From this "alternative" point of view (one that puts creativity before sales) there were a number of watershed years in the history of rock music: 1955, when Chuck Berry "invented" rock'n'roll as we know it; 1966, when Bob Dylan, Frank Zappa, the Doors, the Velvet Underground and others caused a massive revolution within a slumbering music scene; 1976, when the "new wave" and punk-rock caused a similar revolution in a similarly slumbering scene; the late 1980s, when alternative bands invented indie-pop; the mid 1990s, when the Internet and the World-Wide Web turned music into data; and 2001, when digital "instruments" became pervasive. Each of these creative ages was followed by an era of "re-alignment" in which creativity was replaced by sell-out, as the record industry (and commercial bands) capitalized on the innovations of the previous years.

Interestingly, these periods also correspond to major "crises" in the society of the USA. In 1955 the arrest of a black woman, Rosa Parks, who refused to give up her seat to white folks on a bus in Alabama, sparked the civil-rights movement. In 1966 the hippies (opposed to war and in favor of hallucinogenic drugs) caused a second identity crisis, this one not racial but existential (about the "American way of life"). The defeat in Vietnam and the "Watergate" scandal of 1974 (following a terrible oil crisis) triggered another identity crisis, this time of confidence in the system. In 1988 the era of Ronald Reagan came to an end (and two years later the same happened to Margaret Thatcher in Britain) and in 1989 the Berlin Wall fell, ending the Cold War and sanctioning the triumph of capitalism, a sequence of events that caused a crisis of motivation and imagination. In the mid-1990s the boom of the Internet introduced dramatic social and economic changes in the everyday life of ordinary people. In 2001 a crisis of insecurity was created by the Islamic terrorists who attacked the USA on its own soil. Finally, the global economic boom of the 1990s ended in the huge financial crisis of 2008, that was ultimately a crisis of the capitalist system.

This book is divided into seven parts that roughly mirror those periods.

I generally used the date of the debut to classify chronologically a musician. The dates that you will often find next to the title of a paragraph are the dates in which the musicians debuted. For example, a paragraph marked 1982-85 talks about musicians who debuted between those two years.

Traditionally, books on the history of rock music begin by defining rock music as the meeting of country music and rhythm'n'blues, which is roughly correct (personally i feel that the rhythm'n'blues component was much stronger than the country component but, of course, it all depends on whether you consider Chuck Berry or Elvis Presley as the founding father of rock'n'roll). However, this definition is out of touch with today's rock music. Today's rock music is a genre that employs sampling techniques, electronic instruments, digital/computer technology, cacophony, and ethnic sources (beyond African-American and Anglo-Irish). The roots of today's rock music lie in the technical and stylistic innovations brought about in the first half of the 20th century. Rock music is also part of a stream of "popular music", whose beginnings can be dated even further back, to the end of the 19th century. In fact, it would be more accurate to define today's rock music as the meeting of avantgarde music, dance music and pop music. Therefore, my "alternative" history of rock music begins much earlier than most books on the origins of rock'n'roll.

For this second edition i added "and dance music" in the title because the chapters on funk, disco, hip-hop, techno, house, drum'n'bass and so forth all the way to grime and dubstep represent more than just detours. They are an integral part of the story. (I was very tempted to title the book "A History of Young People's Music" because that's, ultimately, what it is).

In case you are wondering, the subtitle of the book implies that the music covered in this book is no longer a monopoly of the capitals of the Anglosaxon world but has spread everywhere, and the last chapters are as international as it gets.

This second edition includes a Part 7 that deals with the 2000s. As the proof-editors know, i originally sent them a Part 7 that i considered a decent summary of the decade as it was presented to you (the listener) by the most influential labels, magazines and webzines. When i started reading it myself, though, i had the "what the heck" crisis: just when the book was ready to be printed, i rewrote all the chapters of Part 7 adding dozens of obscure musicians that i had initially left out. Just like for the previous decades, what is "relevant" for me is not always what is relevant for the marketing departments of music labels and for the editors of the most popular magazines/webzines. And perhaps this is the main value of my books.

Having embarked in such a monumental effort, it was inevitable that i would feel the urge to rate the music, and to guide the readers towards an essential discography. The number in parentheses after the name of a group or musician is a way to rate their/her/his career. It is a three digit number that summarizes how many albums i have rated 9/10, 8/10 and 7/10 (only albums, not EPs or minis or compilations). So, for example, Captain Beefheart is a 214, the highest rating in the book (2 of his albums are worth 9/10, one is an 8/10, and 4 are 7/10). When the number is only two digits, it means that the musician has no album worth 9/10; when it is only one digit, there is no album worth 8/10. (Needless to say, this system of rating is unfair to musicians who lived before the age of the album: sorry, i couldn't come up with a better system). In rating the albums, i was totally indifferent to whether the album had sold ten million copies or only two copies (neither piece of information says much about the quality of the music). There are many many more fans of famous stars than of obscure musicians, so i imagine that my ratings for famous albums will shock many more readers than my ratings for obscure albums. That, too, does not say much about the quality of the music.

It is obvious that my ratings have been decreasing throughout the first decade of the new century. Many readers ask me if there is a reason why the quality of music has worsened. I think that the question is not framed correctly. The quality that we are referring to, when we rate an album, is about... albums. The album of the Sixties, even when it was not a career anthology, collected the best material of the artist (sometimes the best over many years). During the early 2000s the cost of making a disc became so cheap that sometimes musicians didn't even rehearse before recording their music. I feel that it is unfair to compare two media that are actually very different: the album of the 1960s that went through a painful selection process because it cost a lot of money to make, and the album of the 2000s that goes through virtually no selection process because it is so cheap to make. Needless to say, the former tends to be of higher quality than the latter. The era of the download has further diluted the concept of "album". We are living the transition to a new medium. We will have to change the way we rate music. Sometimes i think i should have done so a long time ago, instead of contributing to the economy of the album, which became one of the biggest swindles of all times.

For each album i indicate in parenthesis the year of release. Unlike classical music (in which what counts is the date of composition) and jazz music (that cares about the date of the recording), rock music uses release dates (and thus, sometimes, a song is credited to a date when the composer was already dead). I feel that the year of composition/recording is more important, but i didn't have the time to research the year of composition/recording for all albums.

My bias is towards the music, not the lyrics: it is called "rock music", not "rock literature". And there's a reason: as literature, it is worth very little. Even the greatest rock lyricists are, at best, mediocre poets. No surprise, therefore, that i rarely mention the lyrics of a song. The overall feeling is, in general, much more important than the literal message.

Quick notes about the formatting: a musician's or band's name is underlined in the place where the musician's or band's work is analyzed (and that's the page used for the alphabetical index); titles of collections (albums, mini-albums or EPs) are in bold, whereas titles of individual compositions are in italic.

I apologize for taking quite a few liberties with the English language. To start with, i consider all band names as plural names (e.g., Kiss were a group, The Velvet Underground were great). I don't like the repetition of comma followed by an "and" so i tend to omit the comma (e.g., "blood, sweat and tears" instead of "blood, sweat, and tears"). I tend to capitalize all articles and prepositions in song titles, album titles, bands, etc (this is mainly to clarify what constitutes the title or name). I never capitalize months (i have no idea why). Ditto for titles such as "president", "prime minister", etc. And, as you can see, i don't like to capitalize the first-person singular pronoun. I minimize punctuation (e.g., i rarely put "particularly" or "especially" or "notably" within commas). By the same token, i do not like to put commas behind temporal ("After 1963...") or spatial ("In Europe...") expressions. I avoid the term "American" to refer to the USA (the USA is one of the many countries of America, just like France is one of the many countries of Europe, and "American" is anyone who lives in that continent, stretching from Canada to Argentina). I use "USA" as the correct adjective ("a USA band" instead of "an American band").

I have routinely changed the spelling of foreign words whenever they use a character that is not part of the English keyboard. We have been doing this for centuries to the Chinese, Arabic and Indian languages, so i don't see why we shouldn't do it for to French, Spanish, German, etc. For example, accented vowels are rendered in my book with the closest English vowel.

I have to thank at least the volunteers who proof-edited the text, mainly Bob Assante, Neil Bhakta, Nick Campsall, Brian Coney, Anthony Decicco, Thomas Geist, Ken Gilbert, Carlos Guzman-Verdugo, Tamas Kremer, Justin Nierenhausen, Corrado Nizza, Teun Romme, Sjoerd van Wijk, Aron Vallinder. Nick and Teun made a huge difference. Also the people who have worked on foreign translations of my book and who sent valuable comments: Tao Zhu (Chinese), Max Osini (Italian), David Medina (Spanish), Tomek Kaminski (Polish), Tamas Kremer (Hungarian). And Nicola Mecca helped create the alphabetical index. Rocco Stilo worked on the discography. Jakub Krawczynski did a lot of humble but precious work. Above all, i thank countless readers for their criticism.

Two of my books are complementary to this one: "A History of Pop Music" and "A History of Jazz Music". The first one covers the events leading up to the birth of rock'n'roll (blues, country, gospel, soul, world-music). The second one is a separate book only because we are still cursed with the bizarre habit of dividing rock and jazz music. "A History of Avantgarde Music" is not published yet (as of 2009) but you can read the text on my website.

For further reading, my website "www.scaruffi.com" has thousands of pages on the musicians mentioned in this book. It also contains a much more detailed bibliography and a list of music magazines.

Piero Scaruffi

Main Bibliography

Christgau, Robert: Christgau's Record Guide (1981)
Clarke, Donald: Penguin Encyclopedia of Popular Music (1989)
Erlewine, Michael: All Music Guide (1994)
Gillett, Charlie: The Sound of the City: The Rise of Rock and Roll (1970)
Hardy, Phil & Laing Dave: Faber Companion to 20th Century Popular Music (1990)
Pareles, Jon: The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll (1983)
Prenderast, Mark: The Ambient Century (2000)
Robbins, Ira: Trouser Press Record Guide (1985)
Robbins, Ira: Trouser Press Guide to '90s Rock (1997)
Scaruffi, Piero: Storia della Musica Rock (1991)
Southern, Eileen: The Music of Black Americans (1971)

Short version | Long version | Index

People who contributed to this book.

  • Chronology of Rock Music
  • Profiles of 1980's bands
  • Profiles of US bands of the 1990's
  • Profiles of non-US bands of the 1990's
  • Profiles of 1970's bands
  • Profiles of 1960's bands
  • Profiles of 1950's bands
  • Cronologie della Musica rock
  • Schede anni '80
  • Schede anni '90 USA
  • Schede anni '90 non-USA
  • Anni '70
  • Anni '60
  • Anni '50
  • Lebenslauf der musiker der 80ziger
  • Lebenslauf der U.S. musiker
  • Lebenslauf der nicht-U.S. musiker
  • Chronologie der Rock Musik

  • (Copyright © 2002 Piero Scaruffi)